“I miss dancing” a friend of mine says sometime in late June. “What?” I reply, thinking I must have misheard him. “I miss dancing”, he hesitates a bit “…and information [independent media]”. I can’t help laughing “Well one is very important for democracy, the other … not so much” I claim. But then again he has a point. At this stage Bujumbura has been in turmoil for almost two months, he lives in a turbulent neighbourhood, I don’t, but we are all already very tired. People just want their regular lives back, and being able to enjoy life, not just live it. Unfortunately this is not to happen in 2015.
In January 2015 I arrived in Burundi for the first time, both nervous and eager to start field work for my PhD, curious about the country and its people, whose lives I was to get to know and understand. I was quickly thankful for having ended up in Burundi following some drama of getting to a field site and a row of coincidences bringing me to Burundi in the end. Burundi in January was a very enjoyable country to visit, both the climate and people; warm and pleasant, Bujumbura small and easy to learn to navigate, the beach by Lake Tanganyika a popular week-end spot for relaxing with friends, and the green hills of the interior stunningly beautiful and serene. It was a very easy place to start calling home.
The first thing I remember being struck by when arriving in the country (besides people’s love for jogging/walking) was the news consciousness. The love/thirst for news was in particular evident around lunch time when RPA, the independent radio station that has since been made dysfunctional after the failed coup attempt in May, had its news broadcast. Every other taxi and car on the street would have the radio on and pedestrians could be seen using their phones as radios, pushing the top of the phone to their temples. I of course didn’t have anything to compare this news thirst to but when asking around got told that yes Burundians were pretty news eager but it was more evident now as elections were coming up. Yes, tension was already brewing under the surface in January (and probably a long time before that).
The next months this became clearer with rumours flying around and tension in the air. But on the surface things remained calm and people went about their business as usual, waiting for President Nkurunziza’s decision on the third term. On the 25th April the wait came to an end and the ruling party, CNDD-FDD declared that Nkurunziza would be their candidate. This resulted in protests on the streets, many neighbourhoods completely blocked, closing of businesses in town and violent clashes between protesters and police. 13th of May saw a failed coup attempt and during this period Burundi got some interest from the international media, and to a lesser extent, the international community.
After the coup attempt however it seemed as if the international media got bored and moved elsewhere for more fresh and exciting events. In Bujumbura things changed as well, the protests soon came to an end with police making it impossible to protest anymore and for us privileged enough not to be living in neighbourhoods where the protests had been predominant, life kind of went back to normal, but a new kind of normal, a very abnormal kind of normal. Roads and shops and businesses were open again but regularly one would be woken up by gunshots or the sounds of grenades. Police was patrolling the streets in the former protest areas and the inhabitants doing night rounds. Grenade attacks also started becoming more common and then assassinations and assassination attempts. The weeks turned into months and slowly but surely the situation deteriorated, getting worse and worse without big incidents, like a coup attempt, catching the attention of those outside Burundi’s borders.
Definitions of peace and the new “normal”
Many Burundians keep saying that only a small part of Bujumbura is experiencing insecurity, the rest is at peace. And these are not just the government supporters. To me this depicts the incredibly low standard Burundians have for the definition of peace, sad but understandable given their history. Absence of gun-shots at your door step seems to be what “peace” means. To me the new normal is a far cry from what can be called peace by any stretch of the imagination.
The new normal includes gunshots, grenades, assassination attempts, arbitrary arrests and dead bodies. Dead bodies being found in the streets of the capital on a nearly daily basis. I live in a rich, peaceful area so am spared the trauma of ever seeing a dead, mutilated body in my neighbourhood. But the pictures are all over social media. I try to avoid them. I do not see any point in looking at pictures of mutilated bodies. It just seems disrespectful towards the diseased and their families. But they are impossible to avoid, they are everywhere, pictures of usually young people lying on the street, awkward positions, heads sometimes in red puddles of blood. Pictures that you see day after day, week after week, month after month. In a contradictory way, both something you get used to (forming part of the new normal) and at the same time something that eats at you, a little bit at a time, but slowly and surely. At some point I am talking to a friend that lives in one of the hardest hit areas. He makes sure he is at home every night by six pm, both because shootings are common in his neighbourhood and because he says that both the police and armed civilians are known to rob people after dark so it is better to be inside by the time the sun goes down. I make some comment about how hard it must be to always be under this self-imposed curfew and listen to gunshots outside your house on a regular basis. He always has a positive attitude however and says it isn’t so bad, but what bothers him are the dead bodies found on the streets. It seems that the plan to terrorise people by leaving dead bodies at their door step is successful. Gunshots are tolerable, dead bodies less so.
For us living in safe areas there are small things that still change. I don’t deny that we are safe. When I first see bullets shooting across the sky I am sitting on my terrace enjoying a glass of wine, not hidden inside in terror. The red streaks going across the Bujumbura night sky are far away from me and I don’t even see a reason to go inside. The direct effect on our lives are minor. I am however always ready for something to happen, an attack, another coup attempt, something that will force us to stay inside for some days and need to be prepared for that. The small talk is also getting peculiar. “How was your night/week-end?” gets answered with whether it was “chaud” or “calme”. Hot meaning a lot of shootings and bombings, calm that nothing was to be heard. An absurd kind of small talk when you think about it, but you get drawn into the new norm so quickly it takes me a while to realise how surreal this is.
Assuming that everyone and anyone might have left the country has also become a new norm. I get the comment very often, “you are still here?” or even “when are you leaving?” long before I decide to leave. But I am foreign. This is not my country. It is not completely absurd to think that I would leave when violence starts becoming an everyday event in Bujumbura. Somehow this assumption also becomes a norm for Burundians however. Whether I am looking for a French teacher or a washing machine repairer the very common response from friends is “Yes, I know someone” followed by “I don’t know if s/he is still in the country”, assuming that people might have fled their own country is becoming normal.
But the worst thing is the conversations with the number of friends I have that live in hotspot areas and whose lives have been turned upside down since late April. There are constant worries about what to do, how to ensure the safety of their families. Leaving for another neighbourhood? Leaving for the interior? Or leaving the country? What are the options? What would this cost? Do they have enough money? You can’t leave too early because you want the situation to have calmed down when the money runs out and you need to come back. But you also don’t want to leave too late, what if there is an attack next week? If you listen to rumours, there is always an imminent attack. No one wants to live their lives based on rumours, but if you ignore them the worst case scenario is that you could end up paying with your life. These are the thoughts, worries and calculations of many of my friends living in the difficult areas. Worries, fear and pain that no one is asking me to take away from them but it is as if with every story and anecdote I do take a tiny little fraction of that pain and make it my own.
I often hear the lack of money given as the explanation that many of my friends haven’t left the country yet, despite the difficult situation in their neighbourhoods. Some have told me repeatedly that I shouldn’t think for a second that it is patriotism that is keeping them in the country. If they had the money they’d be out in a second. Same friends that were so energetic and enthusiastic about a new Burundi when protesting in May. I often answer that I don’t think that the over 200,000 refugees registered in the neighbouring countries had necessarily a lot of funds. But I am frequently told that a refugee camp is the last option taken. I have been told more than once by people who have experience of refugee camps from the civil war that they’d rather die in Burundi than go through that experience again. For those with young children the idea of a refugee camp is even worse, with cholera and other diseases being the biggest threats. One friend who has two young children tells me he knows a woman who left early on with her four children to a refugee camp, now only one of her children is still alive. For him staying in Burundi is still a better option. I often wonder if Burundi didn’t have such a recent history of refugees and fresh wounds from that experience we might be seeing even more than the already over 200,000 refugees.
Around seven months after the beginning of the crisis I realise that I have reached my limits and cannot go on. I hence make the very difficult decision to leave earlier than planned. In my last week I go to the interior. I therefore have a good night’s sleep on the 11th December, contrary to the inhabitants of Bujumbura where shootings start in the early hours when military barracks are attacked. The day is horrific. It somehow goes on in slow motion with me going between replying to friends from outside the country checking in on me whilst simultaneously trying to get news from those that are in real danger in Bujumbura. One friend is hiding with his wife under their bed for hours due to heavy fighting right outside their house. The fighting between the attackers and government army seems bad enough but it is the retaliation by the police later in the day that scares me the most. Police is going from house to house in the hotspot neighbourhoods, dragging mainly young men out of their houses, beating, arresting and/or shooting those guilty of living in the wrong area, and being of the wrong age and gender. When I get news of the police now being next door to a good friend of mine my body doesn’t know how to react. My stomach turns upside down, I start tearing up and gasp for air, all at the same time. There is no describing the helpless and uselessness you feel in such circumstances. “Soit à l’aise” a common friend of ours, that is thankfully with me, tells me in a calm state that I imagine can only be accomplished by someone that has experienced much worse circumstances.
It is an odd farewell I have when leaving the country three days later. I am lucky, in the end none of my friends are physically hurt or arrested during that day. But two of them lose cousins. One of them at least has access to the body and apologises for not being able to attend my tiny little farewell due to planning for the funeral. The other I have already said goodbye to but I get a message from him once I have left where he apologises for not having called on the day of my departure, but he and his family were busy searching for the body of his cousin (which they never find, assuming that it has been buried in one of the mass graves made after this day). It is thus under tragic, heart-breaking conditions that I leave the country I have spent 2015 in and come to love.
So I head back home with sadness and guilt, a sense that I have deserted and betrayed my friends, and the whole country even, by leaving. Betrayed everyone by being so privileged that when things got a little bit tough I could jump on a plane and leave to a place where I, and those around me, are safe and sound. An amazing privilege that most of my Burundian friends don’t have. So they carry on, because they have no choice. This I have been told a number of times when I stupidly ask how they cope with the situation. Of course it is the only answer to give, they cope because they have to.
I return home. But as I rest and seek the soothing nurture, calm and quiet of the dark December of northern Iceland, healing from a pain that was never mine to begin with and wallowing in my white privilege guilt, Burundi has real problems to deal with.
A new rebel group has officially been formed, with the aim to remove President Nkurunziza. The AU has declared their willingness to send in 5000 peace-keepers but the Burundian government has said that they are not welcome and will be fought if they arrive. Peace dialogue in Entebbe on the 28th December didn’t seem to go very well and the government wasn’t willing to continue on the 6th January as planned. It seems like civil war is knocking on Burundi’s door and no one cares enough to avert it, not the government, not the opposition, and not the international community.
During my year in Burundi I have frequently thought about the interplay between fear and hope, how they often co-exist in a sometimes contradictory manner. Admittedly I fear for Burundi as we welcome a new year, but in that fear I cling on to hope. It is not just a baseless hope; it is a hope based on my interactions with Burundians during my time there. My research is focused on ex-combatants, often those considered particularly violent and assumed to be the first ones to join a new war. These interactions have given me a lot of hope. I have heard again and again that they are the ones that know war and the last ones that would go back to that life again. But I fear because I have also seen the slow change since May when energetic guys told me they would never alter their peaceful means of protest, to December where some have changed their minds already and others seem to be slowly changing their position. I have hope because I have met so many intelligent, dynamic people that are proud of their country and just want to live in peace with their fellow Burundians, that just wish for their politicians to get their act together so that people can live in peace and enjoy what their country has to offer. Will politicians listen to this very humble request? Hopefully 2016 will give us a positive answer to that question.
Gudrun Sif Fridriksdottir is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Iceland. She conducted field work in Burundi from January till December 2015